I've been meaning to write about social media for a while, and now seems a good time to discuss it. For photographers, social media is in a state of transition, with Instagram particularly on the wane, and users migrating to Vero (again).
This is a long-read deep-dive into the subject, and a bit of a grumble too. Because I don't think the major social media platforms are really working for us.
What Do We Want?
Largely speaking, photographers use social media for two main reasons;
To get some eyeballs on their work. We put a lot of effort into making nice photos, and even the introverts among us would like to think that other people would enjoy seeing them too. For more commercially-focussed photographers it's also an affective marketing tool.
To mix with 'our people'. Nature photography can be a lonesome pursuit - which is one of the attractions of it - but it's also nice to dip into a familiar community when you want to, for feedback, ideas, and interaction with like-minded people.
The Problem With Social Media For Photographers
Photography provides content that people enjoy, and it's one of the core media that drives traffic on a platform, whether it's viewed directly or via shares/retweets, etc. Good photography is an asset to the platform, and having it on their site enables companies to attract and retain users. And if the content creators leave a platform, users are left with a timeline full of ads, suggested posts, and village notices. No content = no audience for advertisements. So the guiding principle of any social media is good content. However, the actual content creators are often offered a pretty raw deal.
Fighting the Algorithm
When I post a photo on Facebook or Instagram they only show that photo to around 5-10% of the people who follow me. And I might not be the best at using social media but it's not just me. Photographers, creatives, and small businesses everywhere are experiencing the same proportion of exposure - to those users who have explicitly clicked a 'follow' button to see posts from us in the past.
Meta say that it's algorithm is tuned to show people what they want to see, with a bias on content from close friends and family. The trouble is that when people see a nice photo I've posted, and they decide to follow my page - they don't realise that my posts will slowly be phased out of their timeline if they don't perform sufficient interactions with them to coax the algorithm into showing them more. That's not great for them, and it doesn't work for me either. It's increasingly not worth the bother.
Gaming The Algorithm
It is possible to increase your 'Likes' and exposure on social media by looking at what the algorithm wants, and serving that up. For some people this might come naturally, especially if you're outgoing. But for many, the idea of posting several times a day, asking inane questions at the end of posts in order to provoke comments, or sharing video clips, etc - that just doesn't feel authentic to me. And I won't misrepresent myself for the benefit of exposure. But many do - whether it's driven by profit, pride, ego, or desperation, lots of photographers feel they have to play the game in order to get their photos seen. So the effect of the algorithm is to create a two-tier system; rewarding those who play, and punishing those who stay true to their principles.
External Validation & Competitiveness
This isn't exclusive to photography, but it's pretty clear that social media encourages both the need for external validation (seeking 'Likes' for the benefit of self-esteem), and a kind of social / professional jealousy, which leads to an unhealthy competitiveness. These are both well-known traps, but they can be very problematic. If you find yourself posting on social media in the hope of getting a reaction, or x number of 'Likes', just ask yourself if that's a helpful mindset.
An issue affecting the creativity of photography is that on many social media platforms, popular images have become increasingly homogenised because certain subjects / styles are popular (e.g. lone trees, or girls in yellow jackets in front of waterfalls). That generates a culture of photographers reproducing those cliches in order to attain 'Likes' from the masses. In turn, that also makes it very difficult to succeed on social media if you do something more creative, quiet, or introspective. And I'm not even close to being an extreme example of that. I feel for others who are doing more out-there stuff. It's just not going to please the algorithm, and their posts aren't shown to people. So creatively, it can be negative for the photography community.
On a technical level, photos on sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, are compressed and scaled-down to the point where they can look pretty dreadful. That's done to reduce the storage space on their servers, and to increase loading-speeds. But the lossy compression methods and reduced resolution create an experience which is so far below the standard that a good photograph deserves to be shown, or needs to be seen to be enjoyed at it's best.
Many photographers - certainly those shooting for fine art and wall art will carefully compose details within the frame, that are simply lost at such small viewing sizes. As a rule of thumb, images that are full of detail and multiple points of interest are best taken in large, whereas small viewing sizes are best suited to graphically simple images. So this fact creates a strong bias for simple images, for social media success. Some of my images are very simple. But it's not helpful for photographers and artists to have to operate in a system with this kind of bias, as it shapes the kind of photos people start to take, and diminishes the importance of those which don't suit the format. Apart from anything else - having your photo shown in a scrolling timeline, 2 inches wide, for half a second is far from the ideal presentation.
Facebook & Instagram make it very difficult to link to blog posts, or photos on my site (where they look much better), because they don't want users leaving their platform. Facebook shows posts with links in them to even fewer people, and Instagram doesn't even render clickable hyperlinks. Simply because they want people to stay on their site for as long as possible - to harvest more data, and show more ads.
Promoting One-Dimensional Accounts
Lastly, it's very hard to get any traction without effectively being a single-issue party. One of the classic lines of advice for online ventures is to be precise in your subject - because amongst the billions of online users, every niche has it's audience. In my case that advice might sound like "Be the deer guy". Or "Be the dark images of animals guy". Or "Be the guy who keeps going to Iceland". The trouble is that, as much as people resonate with a one-dimensional product, I'm actually a human with a broad range of interests. And I don't want to be the anything guy. I want to share photos of deer, photos of cows on a black background, and photos of glaciers, and that just doesn't work well on social media. The person who followed me for deer doesn't want to see Icelandic glaciers, and the person who followed me for woodland landscapes doesn't want to see another damn cow portrait. So that's an issue for those who cover a range of interests.
The Problem With Social Media For Everyone
The key take-away, which is relevant to any free web-service, is the old adage...
If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold. - Tim O'Reilly
This is to say that free services like Facebook operate principally in the interest of their advertisers and data-clients, not their user base. We're nothing more than hamsters in wheels to them. In 2017 data overtook oil as the most valuable asset in the world, yet we still hand it out like party favours.
Every time we look at a social media stream, we're shown something uniquely generated by AI in milliseconds, to curate the world as it determines we should see it. It creates your bubble, showing you posts you are likely to interact with, painting you a crafted picture of the world. The algorithm doesn't care what is true, or what's real, it just shows you things it thinks will engage you, to keep you on the site longer, to harvest more data, and show more ads. We all know that's it's not a true reflection of the real world, and yet the bubble manages to pull the wool over our eyes because it's so effective.
Renowned computing professor Stuart Russell relayed a parable about how AI solves problems in ways we wouldn't expect. He recalls the example of how social media AI algorithms were given the objective of curating user's social feeds in a way which keeps them on the site/app longest. The designers expected it to learn to predict the posts that a user is most likely to enjoy, and show them those. Instead it learnt that users with more extreme views are more predictable in their actions, so it chose to encourage extremism and amplify anger; thereby moulding users to be more predictable. Problem solved. And that genie is not going back in the bottle - it's too effective. Sites like Twitter in particular, exploit this precise solution - exacerbating problems in society as a side-effect. Think about the last time you shared or commented on a post, castigating something you dislike, disagree with, or find politically abhorrent. It works. It drives engagement.
Amongst the relatively harmless ads we're shown, our bubble is also hijacked by nefarious organisations and nation states to disseminate disinformation, create divisions, incite violence, and swing elections. The most high-profile case was the use of Cambridge Analytica's data on millions of Facebook users, to affect the Brexit and Trump votes. The Russian state was also found to have used Facebook for the same end, and as part of a longer campaign to undermine democracy generally. It's frightening to think that this tool exists, and is still in use today by Russia and China, as well as the USA and UK, which were recently found to be running propaganda campaigns overseas via social networks.
On a more personal level, we know that social media exacerbates feelings of inadequacy, isolation, fear, as well as creating distractions, FOMO, anxiety, depression. Seeing the edited highlights of the lives of 100 people we don't really know isn't very helpful, and we're far better off devoting our time and attention to real life, and the people we actually care to spend time with.
The Choice Of Platforms
Back to photography - what are the options?
Facebook, undoubtedly has the widest audience, with almost 3 billion users. It's a mainstream platform, and it's probably the most effective for sharing photos with those outside the photography community. However, as mentioned previously, it also has a reputation for exploiting/leaking personal data, and for allowing disinformation campaigns that are extremely harmful to wider society. But, on the plus side, it does have a semi-decent facility that enables you to schedule posts to both Facebook and Instagram, which makes posting easier. So, every cloud.
As a user I struggle with Facebook's disregard for personal privacy. I'm shy. I don't want everyone I'm friends with to be shown something I've 'Liked' in their timeline, with a little note saying "George liked this!" every time I do anything. It makes me want to hide away and never 'Like' or comment on anything - which is has been my position with Facebook for the last several years. I don't have the app on any devices, and I only log into it from a specific browser, when I need to. What with that and the more sinister data-misuse, I really want to close my Facebook account altogether, but I'm only able to share photos to my photography page if I have a personal account.
You would think that social media companies would value people who are effectively generating their content. However, with Facebook restricting my posts to just 5-10% of the people who have followed my page, the futility of it is nudging me closer and closer to feeling able to close my Facebook account for good.
Instagram is in a bit of a state of limbo; torn between the photography user-base it grew from and the shiny new video consumer-base. To me, it feels like a generational shift. After the millennials grew up with the original photo-sharing Instagram - making it what it was, Gen Z is more video-focussed, and Instagram is having to pivot to retain their target age-bracket at the expense of users now at the upper end of that demographic. In 2021, Instagram's head announced that "Instagram is no longer a photo sharing app", signalling a switch to focus more on video. And they're desperately copying features from the likes of Snapchat, Tick-tock, and BeReal, but in doing so are losing their core audience. It's a shame, in a way. Instagram is becoming a bit of a ghost town. Most of the photographers still using it are the ones whose business plan relied on it, and haven't yet adapted to the change. Many of the photographers I enjoy have pretty much stopped posting on it, and the vast majority of my timeline is just ads, viral videos, and suggested posts.
Let's face it, Insta was never a great platform for viewing photos, what with the focus on mobile, and issues with aspect ratios. But it is where the photographers were, so it was at least reliable for a photography community, and some great photos. My guess is that users will come back in the future, but for now it's kind of a cultural desert.
I think of Twitter like the ticker-tape scrolling along the bottom of the screen of a 24-hour news channel. It's great for releasing information and announcements, but it's ephemeral stuff, lost within a very short amount of time. I've never had much interest in my photos from Twitter. It does suit some people though, and for a while it played host to some interesting discussion, on landscape photography particularly. I guess it's another platform where shyness is a bit of a barrier to entry. Like with Facebook, I'm always hesitant to post a reply or join a conversation on Twitter, because that reply will be shown to everyone that follows me, irrespective of context and interest. I don't like things I say to one person being broadcast so publicly, so I just tend not to join in. It feels like shouting across a crowded room. But for the outgoing, it can be a good platform to get your work seen.
Of course in the last couple of years Twitter has been rife with grifters shilling NFTs, but that seems to have died down for the moment. In their wake I think it's become a little more pleasant, and feels more like a community again, but many that were turned off by NFTs don't seem to have come back.
Probably the main problem I have with Twitter is the way its algorithm continually drags me into political stories and injustices in a way I really don't need, and I quickly end up feeling sad and angry about issues over which I have no control. I want social media to be a positive place, and Twitter is rarely that, so I often actively avoid it.
TikTok / Twitch / Snapchat
Sorry, I'm too old for any of these.
But I would add a note of caution about TikTok, as it's a Chinese company, so extremely vulnerable to coercion and misuse by the Chinese state. This risk of state interference is the reason why the UK government is banning integration from Huawei in the UK 5G networks, and why US, UK & European government agencies banned use of Kaspersky AV software. More recently the UK Parliament closed it's TikTok account for the same reason, shortly before Chinese tech companies were forced to pass data to their government. TikTok have also been caught recording the contents of users' clipboards (text you've copied, including passwords), even when it's only running in the background, and after they had previously claimed they would stop.
I think YouTube is probably the most effective platform for building a following among other photographers, but it's also by far the most hard work. Making videos and editing them is an extremely demanding and time-consuming process, and it requires a whole skill-set of its own. In most cases, the skill and demands of providing a good YouTube channel are such that those who succeed effectively have to transition from a photographer first, to a YouTuber first and photographer second. But if you have the time, skill, and inclination, YouTube is a fantastic way to gain a following.
Personally, I have no interest in putting myself in front of people on video - So it's not for me. But I do enjoy watching a handful of photographers, for their insights, process, opinions, and for a slice of the outdoors when I'm stuck at home.
Sorry, what year is this? I actually loved Flickr. It's where I first started sharing photos, back in '06, and I found a community of supportive, creative, and inspiring people that helped grow my interest in nature photography. But Facebook came along and blew it away, and a decade later Flickr was still going, unchanged, being passed between owners like a difficult teenager moving from care-home to care-home. It's now in the hands of SmugMug, who seem well-intentioned, but not willing to modernise it. Instead making it a paid service, and not one that will ever attract a mainstream audience for anyone's photos. Anyway, I've written about this before, but all that said I don't think it's too late for Flickr to turn things around, with the content and user-base they have. But I have little confidence they will do that.
Vero is a relative newbie, which first attracted a migration of users leaving Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and is now enjoying a second wave of users leaving Instagram. It's founded on the principal of no ads, no selling data, and no algorithm. That means two things; The users are the customer, so you can trust that it will be developed and operated with user-satisfaction as a priority. Secondly, the lack of an algorithm means that when I share a photo, it will be seen by anyone who follows me. That shouldn't really be so unusual, but in social media these days, it is.
The question is then, if they're not selling data or ads, how is it funded? So far, it's free, but at some point it will become a paid service, costing "around the cost of a cup of coffee per year". I think that's good value for a social channel that offers privacy and respect to it's user base. They also earn a little money from referral links - so if I post a link to a product on the website of a major retailer, and a friend clicks that link and buys something, Vero will collect a small referral fee. Again, I have no problem with that as a funding model. They also have excellent privacy tools for both connecting with others, and when posting something - providing a simple slider to select the audience you're posting to.
But the golden boy, Vero, is not without controversy. It's founder has been linked to some kind of mistreatment of employees via a previous company, and amongst its diverse team of developers, some of them are Russian, which has raised the same concerns of potential state interference and coercion as described previously. Personally, allegations against the founder won't concern me unless evidence emerges to implicate his responsibility. And although any source code moving via developers in Russia is a concern, I think the risk is low in this case.
Anyway, a couple of friends recommended it, so I joined a month or so ago (find me here!), and so far it's been like a breath of fresh air. It's been really refreshing to find so many of the nature & landscape photographers I know and respect on there, and many more that are new to me. I've found the UI a little buggy, and not always intuitive, but I think that will improve.
In many ways it feels like Flickr used to feel. The image quality is superb, and there's no politics - just positivity. It genuinely is a nice place to spend time. But it currently also has the same achilles heel as Flickr; the only people on there are photographers. None of my family are on there, and I don't think anyone outside the photography niche really has the incentive to join (besides data privacy and mental health, but who cares about them). So I have my doubts about it ever going mainstream. I'd like it to, but I think it's more likely that either mainstream social media matures to a paid service at some point, and becomes more like Vero (removing it's USP), or it never gathers the momentum to really take off, and simply dwindles in the shadow of the social giants. Which would be a shame, but ultimately the most likely prospect. My hope is that like small political parties "moving the needle" of popular opinion, fresh services like Vero can demonstrate to the likes of Meta and Twitter what people want from their social media platforms, and encourage them to evolve. To me, that's the true purpose of Vero. It will either persuade the existing major players to change, or it will provide the idea/basis behind the next platform to spring up, which does dominate.
I don't use Glass, but it looks like a combination of Flickr and Vero. It's another subscription service, promising no algorithm and good data security. It's only $30 a year, but without any kind of 'freemium' model, the whole thing lives behind a paywall, so it's impossible to really know what it's like before you stump up the cash. That's a massive barrier to entry. And like Flickr, it's only aimed at photographers, so it will never attract a mainstream audience like Vero has the potential to. But, if you're looking for a photographers-only hangout, I expect it's an excellent evolution of Flickr, albeit with a far smaller user base.
Social Media vs Blogging
In the early days of Twitter and Facebook they were known as 'micro-blogging'. They provided the Pick 'n 'Mix version of blogs; sharing just a sweet handful of content from each user, without the bulk of a full meal. But no man can subsist on a diet of 99% sugar - believe me, I run it close. And the sugary approach of social media definitely has a negative impact on our attention spans. So I think there's still a major place for blogs in addition to, or instead of social media. Blogs are a slower-pace, rewarding attention-spans, richer content, and offering more context alongside photos. And they're not all as long and wordy as this post.
As a consumer, I subscribe to several photographers' blogs and mailing lists, and it's a great way to see photos shared in a collection together, along with some background info and the creator's thoughts, plans, and self-critique. You also get a proper sense of the person behind the photos. The size & quality of the images is always better on a blog too. Personally, I much prefer it to the Pick 'n 'Mix of social media.
As a photographer, I prefer to share photos on my blog for all those reasons, plus the posts actually hang around. They have a long life-span on my website, and continue to attract interest years after I posted them. You certainly don't get that with a Tweet. What's more, your photos reach the people who subscribe to your mailing list, rather than being at the mercy of an algorithm, which might be tweaked to refocus on something else at any time.
For me, both subscribing to and sharing blog posts are part of a long-term intention to slow down, be more focussed in what I'm doing, and engage with things properly. It's an active reaction to the short-termism and throw-away culture of social media, and I recommend it.
What Should Social Media Be?
Ten years ago, the social media space looked a little like the 90's dot-com boom. Under the guise of connectivity and positivity, there was a huge land-grab going on as firms competed for more users and data. They expanded rapidly, almost completely unregulated, and have now grown into powerful dystopian corporations, creating an evermore fragmented and divisive society. Something has to change.
You might be reading this thinking - no, I like social media - I love seeing what my friends are up to, and it gives me a great opportunity to share my life with people I would otherwise never encounter. That may be true but it's failing most people, as well as wider society, so there is a great deal of room for improvement.
Here are some things I'd like to see from social media...
Primarily, a positive space for sharing and communicating with friends, family, and like-minded people, companies & organisations.
A security-lead approach, preferably with servers in the EU, where data security laws are the strictest in the world.
A simple data policy that users understand, and which respects the rights of those users. With an easy way to see what data is stored on you, how that is used, and how to opt-out.
If it costs a little bit of money, to pay for running costs, staff, and innovation, is that so bad? There are currently 2.9 billion Facebook users. If each of those paid just a coupe of dollars a year, it might save us paying with our privacy & personal data. Crucially, it would also make us the customer - providing an incentive to social media platforms to prioritise making them a better place to be.
Boy, what a rant! Probably my most ranty post in 10+ years of blogging. Well done if you stuck with it. Hello again to those who just skipped to the end :-)
Next month I'll post something positive, I promise. Some new photos, maybe.